As the New Orleans Saints wrapped up the first of three rounds of OTAs earlier this week, much of the focus was on the new faces in town. While these free agent signings and draft picks had plenty of the spotlight, a quarter of familiar faces looking to return from injuries that cost them games and in some cases, seasons, had there own share of attention.
LB Victor Butler, S Kenny Vaccaro, CB Patrick Robinson and WR Joe Morgan all have the hunger to put their respective injuries in the rearview mirror once and for all. All four are slated to play major parts for the Saints in 2014. Vaccaro and Robinson were able to get onto the field last year, but for Butler and Morgan, the season was over before it ever really began.
Victor Butler - LB
Signed as a free agent on a two-year deal last spring, Butler was poised to play a significant role in Rob Ryan's defense. Like Butler, Ryan had just arrived in New Orleans by way of Dallas. Tabbed by Sean Payton to rebuild and retool what was a calamitous unit in 2012, Ryan welcomed Butler into the fold. Butler had recorded 11 career sacks playing in a reserve role behind two of the game's better 3-4 outside linebackers in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Victor Butler is back on the practice field.
Coming off a 2012 season in which he set new career highs with the Cowboys for tackles (25) and forced fumbles (2), Butler looked set to step into a starting role as Ryan oversaw a transition to a base 3-4 defense, but an injury sustained during a drill in OTAs last summer abruptly brought what would have been his first year as a Saint to an end.
Now healthy, Butler was back on the field earlier in the week, participating in full throughout the first three-day session of OTAs. He should help improve a defense that finished last season ranked in the top-5, and should add yet another pass rushing option for Ryan to utilize alongside fellow OLB Junior Galette.
Joe Morgan - WR
Morgan, a speedy receiver who won a roster spot in 2012, was also lost with a season-ending knee injury. His came in August, as the former undrafted talent was once again closing in on nailing down a roster spot and a role on the Saints' offense. There was a need for a vertical threat following the departure of Devery Henderson. Morgan had shown flashes of being able to handle such a role in 2012, catching 10 passes for 379 yards and 3 scores. His eye-popping 37.9 yards-per-catch helps illustrate the Walsh alum's ability to take the top off an opposing secondary with his blazing speed. Joe Morgan is closing in on a full recovery.
Morgan did not fully participate in OTAs this week, but was in attendance, and continues to near his way towards a full recovery. The Saints brought him back on a one-year deal in March, and hope he can once again emerge as an option to stretch defenses and run the routes necessary to free up space over the middle for the likes of Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and the team's 2014 first round pick Brandin Cooks. Morgan has a history of knee issues, as a 2011 injury saw him spend his rookie season on the Saints' injured reserve list. He will hope to bounce back from this latest setback the way he did the first time, going from undrafted, to IR, to the active roster in the span of a year.
Patrick Robinson - CB
Robinson, the Saints' 2010 first round selection, only appeared in two games before a knee injury of his own pulled down the curtains on 2013. Owner of 7 career interceptions, the former Florida State corner turned some heads during Thursdays session, as he was not only back on the practice field, but working in part with the first team defense. He will rotate those reps with Corey White, 2014 2nd round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste, and Champ Bailey, who was signed in free agency following his release from Denver.
Robinson was considered a potential candidate for release earlier this offseason as the team battled tight cap constraints, but the Saints still believe in him as a player who can thrive in the press-man coverage that Ryan likes to employ in his secondary. Due to earn in the neighborhood of $2.8 million this season, Robinson may have some work to do to seal his spot on the team's 2014 roster, but don't count him out just yet. Both Payton and Ryan spoke highly of him following Thursday's session, which was open to the media for the first time all week.
Kenny Vaccaro - S
Unlike his aforementioned trio of teammates in 2013, Kenny Vaccaro saw plenty of action in what was, by and large, an impressive and successful rookie campaign. The team's 2013 first round selection was a vital player in the Saints' secondary, excelling in both the base package and Ryan's Safety-oriented 4-2-5 alignment. He racked up 79 total tackles, a sack, an interception and forced a fumble before a fractured ankle cut his year short in week 16 at Carolina. He could only watch as his team went on to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs, where they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Kenny Vaccaro hurt his ankle in week 16.
Back and raring to go, the former Texas Longhorn will team up with Jairus Byrd, the team's prized free agent acquisition to form one of, if not the league's best Safety tandems. Add Rafael Bush, who the Saints were able to retain by way of matching Atlanta's offer sheet, and Ryan has a versatile trio of Safeties to work with in 2014. Byrd can play the role of center field general, while Vaccaro can operate closer to the box, which was where he was at his best as a rookie.
Fresh Start In 2014
All four of these players are honing in on their return to the Football field for good. All four can emerge from summer, training camp and preseason with major parts to play if they can maintain their health. Should that happen, that's four "old" faces who can provide a fresh newness to a team that was already well-positioned to be a contender in 2014.